‘More a hand grenade than a book’
Review by Rohan Wilson in The Australian‘s Review magazine Saturday November 9, 2019.
Chafing satire and explosive views
- By ROHAN WILSON
For the most part, Australian literature in the 21st century is fairly toothless.
On a good day, our writers can muster up some anger at the appalling treatment of our First Nations people or for the equally appalling treatment the LGBTI community suffers.
But outside of these worthy causes it seems as if our writers enjoy a middle-class contentment that turns their gaze inward to domestic life, rather than outward to civic life.
Meanwhile, the world is going through an economic revolution. The billionaire class and their neoliberal political attack dogs have convinced us that competition is the defining characteristic of human relations.
Wealth inequality is causing epidemics of depression, suicide and obesity. Property ownership has become an impossible dream for whole swaths of the community. A handful of powerful corporations are busy destroying our climate. Are our best writers asleep to what’s going on around them? Or worse, are they happy with the status quo?
Heather Rose is perhaps the last writer I would have expected to come out swinging. Her previous novel, The Museum of Modern Love, won a swag of awards for its depiction of performance artist Marina Abramovic and her piece, The Artist is Present. It was a quiet, contemplative novel about the way art can bring people together and give us hope.
Now we have Bruny, which is more like a hand grenade than a book, with its excoriating satire and explosive views on our political and economic trajectory. It’s the best evidence we have yet that Australian writers are finally waking up to the unfolding crisis.
It begins with an explosion on the newly built Bruny Island bridge in the south of Tasmania. The bridge is meant to connect Bruny to the mainland, making life easier for the locals and boosting tourism.
The explosion has the hallmarks of a terrorist plot and it quickly becomes a central issue in the looming state election. Enter Astrid Coleman. Astrid is called in by her brother, JC, the premier of Tasmania and Liberal Party strongman. He wants a speedy resolution and thinks Astrid, who is an expert in conflict resolution based in New York, can bring together the various factions fighting over Tasmania’s future. But as Astrid starts to dig, she soon learns that JC’s motives are more nefarious than she first assumed.
Rose takes an episodic approach to her story, with Astrid in the field gathering information from bridge workers, restaurant owners, greenies, and anyone who might have reason to blow up the bridge.
A picture of contemporary Tasmania begins to emerge. We see how the politics of austerity have impoverished the community, we see how privatisation has given more and more power to unaccountable private tyrannies, and see, perhaps most frightening of all, that China has moved in to take advantage of Tasmania’s clean, green potential.
Astrid is not without her own problems, too. We learn that her parents’ marriage wasn’t as happy as it seemed and that it has left her with some anxieties to work through. Her own marriage fell apart after her husband revealed himself as a misogynist.
While she is world weary and somewhat cynical about her brother’s agenda, she maintains an optimistic outlook and a deep love for the island of her childhood. But her optimism is seriously challenged by the conspiracy she uncovers as the facts behind the destruction of the Bruny Island bridge come to light.
This is where the satire in the novel really starts to bite. The Chinese Communist Party views Tasmania as yet another Third World location where it might win some influence through investment in infrastructure. It insists that Chinese workers be shipped in to complete the repairs to the bridge and the Liberal government enthusiastically agrees.
Astrid starts to think that the bomb plot may have been staged in order to win support for a change in local employment laws to allow foreign workers to be shipped in wholesale. In fact, the truth is much, much worse.
As I read on and the scale of the conspiracy became clear, I had to put the book aside because I was laughing so hard.
This is audacious writing. It exposes the lies at the heart of neoliberal economics more clearly than any book in recent memory, and it does so with a vicious sense of irony.
And there’s something here for everyone. Whether it’s Astrid’s rule-breaking romantic interest in Dan, the manager of the bridge workers, or the family drama between Astrid and JC, or the political commentary and piss-taking, there are moments on every page that keep narrative tension bubbling away.
I certainly expect to see this book feature in major prize shortlists over the next 12 months. It’s the wake-up call we needed.
By Heather Rose. Allen & Unwin, 424pp, $32.99
Rohan Wilson‘s most recent novel is Daughter of Bad Times.
From Heather: Rohan’s wonderful novel The Daughter of Bad Times shares many of the same concerns as Bruny – but is set in 2074 … do go seek it out!